The Tour Te Waipoumanu covers 1350km of stunning country and is unofficially billed as New Zealand's toughest mountain bike race. One factor that sets the TTW apart from most other NZ ultra bikepacking events is that the clock never stops - it's a true race. If you're not moving you can bet that someone else will be. Sleep if you dare ;-) The course threads cunningly between Cape Farewell, the northernmost point of Te Waipounamu - The South Island, and Slope Point, the end of the landmass in the south.
This was my second go around after riding the inaugural event in 2021. I was keen to give it another shot with more of a plan this time. There were a handful of repeat offenders out of a field of 44 starters: Hana Black, Mark Watson, Pete Maindonald, Steve Halligan and Brian Alder (the creator of this event).
Day 1, Sunday: Cape Farewell to Murchison 267km
Moving: 16:11 Stopped: 49 minutes
The aim was to make Murchison for the night at about the 270km mark, with a decent rest in a real bed. Comfort while it was still an option! I rolled in about 11pm feeling good until about the last hour when my energy dipped and not another OSM bar could be faced.
Some real food and 4 hours sleep felt great. I could see on the tracking website that other riders were pushing on past the town and further into the night (the front runners were long gone!), but this felt about right for me.
I set the alarm for 4am, planning to grab breakfast at Springs Junction.
Day 2, Monday: Murchison to Lake Sumner 166km
Moving: 15:37:15 Stopped: 8:22:45
Up at 4, away at 5, after prepping filled pasta for breakfast in the camp kitchen - trying to hurry but it seems to take forever - the downside of comfy digs and heavy legs.
I pedal into the sunrise heading for Maria Saddle, beautiful views and cool air - the ragged low tops feel familiar - like a scaled down ride through the Arve Valley. Soon breakfast and the dubious delights of Springs Junction.
Up through the Maruia Saddle in the cool air, gradually winding upwards on gravel into the forest - perfect morning. Dropping back down into the random meanderings of Dredgeville, and then finally into Springs Junction for a late breakfast. Some questionable food choices - chips - they’ll still be good later, right? In they go to the back pocket of my shirt. The aroma of cheap salty deep frying will haunt me for the rest of the day.
It’s getting hot, and I succumb to a new found desire to guzzle chilled Coca Cola. A couple of veggie pies are shovelled in, and I hop back on the bike, keen to get moving before any other riders roll up and create an opportunity for stalling. Sporadic tree cover on the long drag up and over Lewis Pass gives blotchy shade from the searing sun. I pause to say hello to a road crew who are checking edge reflectors. ‘You’re really hard to see from behind’ he says, ‘even with that flashing light’. I realised I didn’t have anything brightly coloured with me, and hug the white line on the left and brace every time a truck stinks past. Cresting the Lewis Pass is a joy, I dig some now dank chips out of my shirt pocket and dip down towards the food drop at Boyle River.
The heat is searing by the time I reach the box trailer jammed full of parcels of food and gear. Will I want anything I put in the box? I discover a mountain of discarded OSM bars and over-sugary treats. You could probably survive the rest of the race on the discards alone.
And then, the reward of some technical beech forest single track through the Hope Kiwi. This was my night two stop last year - I hope to push on a bit further, sticking to my rough 7 day schedule.
Day 3, Tuesday: Lake Sumner to Castle Hill Village 134km
Moving: 18:59 Stopped: 5:01
The Dampier Range is the first really big hurdle on the TTW. It's the one that makes you question the sanity of your decision to take on this race at all. It's tough. An unsubtle mix of pushing and carrying your bike is the only way over this barrier, and even the promised and hard earned downhill presents challenges of its own!
But damn is it beautiful, especially caught in the early light of a perfect day.
Day 4, Wednesday: Castle Hill Village to Felt Hut 196km
Moving: 18:12:45 Stopped: 5:47:15
Riding into wet mist in the dark is not the most motivating start to the day. The mojo is slightly deflated and flapping in the breeze. Heavy trucks thunder by, lit up like the finale of Close Encounters. The road section is short but it's an abrupt jolt back to concentration mode. Ear buds out.
Day breaks with a threat. A couple of 10 minute naps in the damp grass on the roadside lever the mood back up. Methven feels like a tipping point (again); a point of no return. I blow too much time on an indulgent and overpriced breakfast.
Refuelled I begin the long slog across the uninspiring Tron-like grid of Canterbury Plains backroads. Denuded and sweltering. Podcasts save the day.
Things improve with the swing back to the west, mountain bound once more. The sky turns dark and a ledge of southerly cloud leans up the Rangitata.
Night catches up too soon. Lights on, head torch catching the fizz of fine droplets which give way to sleet. Rustic Felt hut provides a snug and dry bolt hole. A mattress too!
Day 5, Thursday: Felt Hut to Tekapo 60km
Moving: 13:40 Stopped: 10:20
Departing at 4.45am seemed indulgently casual, but a cushy hut night will do that to you. And so begins the long push up to Bullock Bow saddle. It’s chilly, which helps as the trail here is steep, rocky and slow going. The bike yo-yos between pushing and carrying. My small running pack helps to hook the bike in place and I can even carry hands free for sections.
Cresting Bullock Bow reveals the reward – a long clattery descent into a dreamlike landscape of early light on frigid tarns and glowing orange rock. I arrive at Royal Hut and chat with a few happy Te Araroa trampers. The trampers set off, and I hang out a while longer enjoying being alone in this grand setting.
The next section is a full body workout, carrying the bike again up through lumpy tussock, and up a rocky stream bed that chunders down from Stag Saddle. The day is perfect, sunny but with cool air and the carry seems somehow less laborious than last year. The high point of the course is reached at 1925m, revealing Aoraki and Lake Tekapo - its crazy blue hues an abrupt jolt of surreal colour in the landscape. The downhill is technical, jarring with sneaky hidden rocks ready to smash a sidewall or derailleur. Care needed, but it’s hard to resist letting loose. How often do you get to ride a trail like this!
The final ‘real’ climb today - the loathed ascent out of Camp Stream towards the Round Hill ski field road. It’s an over-steep goat track - the shouldered bike threatens to topple me back down the way I came.
Tekapo at last - supermarket delights present the dilemma of over choice. It’s essential to have a game plan for these gardens of eden. But I don’t have one, so I buy too much, ignoring the fact that I have to either eat it tonight or carry it tomorrow.
Finishing the day at 7pm, I feel like I should keep going to camp alongside Lake Pukaki. Instead I succumb to the lure and peril of comfort and a cabin, and set the alarm for 4am.
Day 6, Friday: Tekapo to Ida Valley 202km
Moving: 18:25 Stopped: 5:35
I managed to faff a bit aimlessly the previous night, taking too long over cooking, showering and tinkering with the bike, and not making the most of my cushy digs. I kicked myself (but not too harshly) about not keeping going the night before, very aware of how much time I blew in Tekapo.
Despite the short sleep, I was ready to roll out at 4am. It was chilly and I imagined the frigid bivi that I had missed out on. Maybe it wasn't such a bad call after all.
Tekapo is a major psychological marker on the route - everything after this point is 'standard' brevet stuff. This section of the route offers a bit of light relief after the horrors of the previous days, starting with a scenic sunrise cruise along the quiet dam roads, dotted with early morning fisherman eager to snag a salmon farm escapee.
The route drops on to the Tekapo river road - basically a dry river bed of rounded rocks, large and loose enough to make efficient pedalling difficult. The full suspension makes it a lot more pleasant than last year's version aboard a bone-jarring hardtail. The Black Forest section seems to whizz by and the short sharp climbs that follow, alongside lake Benmore, don't seem nearly as grim as last time, maybe because now from experience, I know when they end...
Otematata comes a little later in the day than hoped for. It's sweltering, so I glug some cold drinks at the bizzare On The Spot (where's the food?) and the bitter pill of a medicinal espresso from the coffee cart and start on the sweaty slog up and over to Chimney Creek. Just before the devilish zig-zags up on to the Hawkdun range, I spot Lizless catching a power nap under the shade of a bush. I stalk past not wanting to wake her. I appreciate the value of these 10 minute energy injections by now. The Hawkdun tops are simply majestic, and feel vast and timeless. It could be Mongolia. Until you reach the oddly placed Ida Railway Hut, relocated from the valley as a mustering hut and now doing duty as rustic but cosy accommodation in this otherwise rather barren landscape. I'm feeling oddly elated at this point, chuckling to myself and have a thoroughly good time. The high before the crash?!
As the light begins to shift toward the red end of the spectrum, I meet the Fittolive team on Walking Spur and keep pushing on - I want to hit the start of the steep descent to Oturehua with some light as I know it will be fun on this bike. Before the drop I phone ahead to the pub - as I know they only stay open if they have booked diners - and order up a pizza and some cokes as I'm pretty much out of fuel apart from a couple of unmentionable OSM bars and don't know if I'll make closing time. The descent is a blast, half made in the dark and loose as hell. After wolfing my pizza (the thing was loaded!), I pushed on until a little way past the township and hopped into the bevy bag at 11:30 for a couple of shivery hours in a siding of the Otago Rail Trail. The alarm is set for 2:30am.
Day 7, Saturday: Ida Valley to Slope Point 304km
Moving: 23:00:00 Stopped: 1:00:00
It's cold and I'm dopey. Autopilot takes over until the climb up towards Poolburn Reservoir. The morning breaks clear and still. It's clearly going to be hot again. But that's better than the alternative. I'm feeling pretty energised again by now and amped for this fun section of double track, passing a group of motocrossers in stormtrooper gear but otherwise seeing nobody until reaching Lake Onslow.
The misery begins around Mt Teviot, leaving the road and pointing towards Lammerlaw Top. The first bit is just tedious and loveless, but then comes new territory compared to the original route, and what is revealed is a 'tussock forest' (as Brian quaintly termed it later on at the end of the race). Read that as low, scrubby, with zero shade even if you lay on the floor and try and snuggle up against the vegetation (I tried this several times - useless). It also proffers countless false high points. This was my low of lows and I found myself actually shaking my fist and cursing the uncaring landscape. I was losing my grip!
Eventually the 'trail' angled unmistakably to a consistent downward direction, and the rest of the descent to the promised delights of Lawrence was a breeze.
I reach Mecca, AKA Lawrence Night 'n Day, at 7pm. Plenty of time to put my eyeballs back in the right way around and gorge on multifarious and possibly misguided food choices. Amongst these: chips, liquorice, ice cream, egg sandwiches (not too many veggie options in these parts), and then the potential self administered coup de grâce (I hoped not), 4 double shots of espresso decanted into a half bottle of chocolate milk, and 3 cans of coke. I felt sort of deranged but functional at this point after 2 hours sleep in 37 hours and circa 370kms. But I knew that wouldn't last...
My cunning plan: sip my evil brew for the next 130 or so kilometres to the finish. Just a gravel ride - easy? Things started well. I was flying! Up Breakneck Road enjoying the grind, getting ahead of myself in my mind. The finish is so close...
As the light begins to fade so does my resolve. Strike that - the resolve is fine, but consciousness is not playing along. I think I'm falling asleep at the wheel. Clinton is reached and the last of the now clammy chips are shovelled in. Have a Coke. And a smile...
A first 5 minute powernap 'happens'. It feels like I'm not really in charge of this decision, it just sort of occurs, with some part of me observing idly. These tiny moments of respite are strangely effective and I 'wake' feeling kind of, yeah, good to go. So I go.
I don't know where it starts, as I don't know where I am, but there is suddenly a thick layer of freshly laid gravel on the road. This stuff is a nightmare, sucking the energy out of every pedal stroke, it feels a bit like skiing in a white out. Around 1:30am a farm truck looms into view out of a cloud of dust. They ask me where I'm going and where I've come from. Am I ok? The answer confuses them. Or it might just be that I'm not making much sense by this point. They leave me to my task and I slog on, before sneaking another 5 minute slice of heaven. It's steadily drizzling now, but how fine does that patch of grass next to the road look? Like a down duvet.
And on it goes, the law of diminishing returns in full effect. A whiff of salty air and I know it's soon over. With about 5 k's to go I'm in full blown derangement mode and feeling like my mind is coming apart. I understand why sleep deprivation has been used to torture. So, another soggy 5 minute sleep in a ditch it is for me.
Passing the backpacker at Slope Point I wobble up the final climb and meet Brian at the gate to the Point. Was great to see a friendly face (once I figured out who it was and managed to put some words in order).
Like is so often the case with these kind of events, the finish was solitary, uneventful. Simply, no more pedalling to do.
Finish time: 6:05am Duration: 6d 23h 05m
I rode an unreleased Bombtrack test bike.
This is a short travel XC bike with a good sized space in the frame for a custom frame bag from Southern Lite Packs, made down this way in Kingston. Despite my reservations about running a 'complicated' bike (I'm a suspension phobe - too much to go wrong!), I was very pleasantly rewarded with a super comfortable steed that saved my body from getting too beat up - definitely the right rig for this route and I'd go full-sus again if I decide to go for round 3 (noooo!).
Vittoria Mezcal tubeless tyres
32 (elliptical) x 51 gearing
carbon crank and bars
Rock Shox SID Ultimate fork
No dropper - quick release instead
A set of Apidura Backcountry bags (aside from the aforementioned custom framebag). These performed great - nice and light and fully waterproof. The smaller sizes kept me from overloading with gear too ;-). I went with seatpack, handlebar roll and a long top tube pack.
This time I rode with a pack (breaking my usual rule). I used an Ultraspire running pack which turned out to be a key piece of kit - lots of handy stash pockets (cans of coke and coffee for the last stretch), and it rides quite high on your back so didn't feel overly sweaty. It also served as a decent 'shelf' for when chucking the bike on the back for the hikes.
Black Diamond rain jacket and pants (pants cut to 3/4 length to save weight and bulk)
One season Sea To Summit sleeping bag
Arcteryx synthetic insulated jacket
Nemo superlight mattress
Rab sleeping bag cover
Garmin InReach Mini - great for on the fly forecasts and messages when no signal